Parenting is a very noisy business. There are the kids themselves, but also the deluge of advice on what to do to create happy, well-adjusted, successful, non-sociopathic children. They include:
- Nurturing but not coddling: kids need to feel loved but must also know failure
- Pushing but not pressurizing: it’s a competitive world, but push too hard and you turn kids into sheep, prone to depression
- Praising carefully: focus on effort, not achievement, but be careful how the praise is framed
- Encouraging extracurriculars: these activities are good for children, but over-scheduling turns them into zombies
- Embracing technology: parents can’t fight the future, but there is almost zero proven benefit to many devices, which may sap kids of crucial social skills
Now Adam Grant, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests how parents can better foster creativity, a skill touted by many as crucial to succeed in the 21st century.
Child prodigies rarely grow up to become original thinkers because they are programmed to perform, not create, Grant argues. “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new,” he wrote in the New York Times.
Too many rules stamp out creativity, he says, citing research. Parents who have one rule versus those with six, have more creative children. And the 10,000-hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell? Dubious, as practice can breed conformism.
I admire Grant, but I can tell you that I am not paring back on rules, and I am not discouraging practice. This is not because I aspire to stamp out creative impulses, one dumb set of rules at a time. In short, my goal as a parent is not creativity (which educator Ken Robinson defines as the process of having original ideas).
What I want for my kids is authenticity: the ability to figure out who they are, and how to be that person. If that’s changing the world, fantastic. If it’s following in the footsteps of millions of others to become a teacher, engineer, or hairdresser—the current aspiration of my 5-year-old—that’s cool too. To me, the most impressive people are those who found what they love and do it with great passion and discipline, ground-breaking or not.
My kids—and most kids—are probably not prodigies, and they are probably not the 0.0001% that will change the world. It takes all kinds to make a society function, and our glorification of the innovators above all else runs the risk of devaluing a lot of other important things.
In our quest to reverse-engineer the formula for achievement, we leave out a lot of other definitions of success, such as caring for others. A central premise of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business is that individuals who never invest deeply in others miss out on a huge part of themselves.
“Care does not just benefit those cared for, but is also a process of self-actualization or growth; it develops an entire dimension of ourselves as fully human,” she told Quartz.
Eyes on the prize
Maybe parents need to focus more on exposing kids to experiences, and focus less on where those experiences may lead.
Mark Zuckerberg’s parents did not engineer his success. They let him run with his passions. According to a profile in New York magazine, Mark’s father, a dentist, said this of nurturing his budding billionaire:
The best I can say is that as parents, you can engineer the life you want your kids to have, but it may not be the life they want to have. You have to encourage them to pursue their passions. And you have to spend more time on them than you spend on anything else.
When Quartz asked Danish-Icelandic artist and entrepreneur Olafur Eliasson what kids should study, he too focused on the process, not the outcome.
“I don’t know whether we as parents should be so trajectory-oriented on behalf of efficiency,” he said. Maybe parents should focus on giving kids confidence, and supporting them if they want to be change agents, he said. “I’m not sure that we should think about what kids should study. We should think about what parenting should be about.”
Here’s how you expose your kid to creativity: give them blank sheets of paper of instead of coloring books. Be curious. Spend as much time outside as possible, and with people who are genuinely different from the people around you.
Grant concludes his op-ed with exactly this idea:
You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.
Which is finally some advice all parents should be able to agree on.